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On Oct. 3, a message popped up in Andrea Lightner’s inbox on Facebook. It was from a user who shared a mutual friend with her, Lightner says, and who claimed to live in her Kansas hometown.

Lightner, who recently moved to the Bay Area, found the message to be enticing — and then, after she began asking questions and getting non-answers, suspicious. “Hey I love your pics,” the user wrote. “Have you ever thought of catalogue modeling?”

Lightner, 31, had been signed with a modeling agency in Kansas and had done some commercial work in the Bay Area. She was privy to scams. Her agency in Kansas had been “very adamant” about vetting contacts such as these, she says.

The user claimed to be a talent agent with IMG Models, which has a recruitment warning on its website: “Please be aware there are certain individuals on the internet falsely claiming to be representatives (or ‘scouts’) of IMG Models,” the page reads.

Sure enough, the conversation quickly devolved when Lightner started inquiring about the offer. The user became defensive, providing evasive answers to simple questions — where the shoots would be located, for example. Legitimate talent agents are usually quick and willing to answer questions, Lightner says. Within a few messages back and forth, she says, she knew this one was not “legitimate.”

Lightner, who posted the story on Reddit, along with screenshots of the interaction, says she has been “really bothered” by the messages in the days since. Lightner has used sites such as Craigslist to find legitimate modeling jobs in the Bay Area, she says, including a gig for a video game advertisement that was “really cheesy, but fun.” But this conversation rattled her — so much so that she reported the page to Facebook and contacted two police departments (one in San Francisco and the other in Kansas), she says.

Experiences such as Lightner’s illustrate the danger of finding modeling gigs through social media. In a separate case that is playing out in San Diego, two owners of the pornography sites Girls Do Porn and Girls Do Toys, along with two employees, were charged Friday with sex trafficking and other crimes. In the criminal complaint, they are accused of having used Craigslist modeling ads to lure young women to participate in sex videos that were later posted online.

The owners, Michael Pratt and Matthew Wolfe, are being charged with three counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion. Ruben Garcia, an employee, is being charged with the same crimes. A second employee, Valorie Moser, is being charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking; she allegedly helped convince the women to shoot the videos. Wolfe, Garcia and Moser have pleaded not guilty, while Pratt, according to authorities, has left the country and is considered a fugitive.

Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia are also on trial in a civil case in San Diego Superior Court in which 22 women are seeking $22 million in damages from the men. The women claim they participated in the videos only because they were promised they would not appear on the Internet. According to NBC 7 San Diego, Brian Holm, an attorney representing the 22 women, said he had spoken to more than 120 women with similar stories who were featured in Girls Do Porn videos.

The case is consequential: As the New York Times reports, criminal charges have not been brought by federal authorities against pornography producers in more than a decade.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, says the criminal case could be potentially “monumental” if the underlying facts are proven. The sex industry in general, she says, has been “incredibly unregulated” up until this point. These charges signify that law enforcement is taking the online porn industry seriously, she says — and that serious changes could be coming to how it currently operates.

Flashy advertisements, false promises, fake references

Public court filings clearly sketch out the alleged scheme, in which misleading Craigslist ads and fake references helped convince the young women to participate. According to the criminal complaint, the FBI obtained records that included almost 300 Craigslist ads, many of which were connected to Garcia’s email address. The posts promised anywhere between $3,000 to $5,000 for modeling gigs aimed at women ages 18 to 21. Some sought “cute and preppy college females for high paying video shoots”; others advertised, “Cute Teen Girls Make $5,000 Today.” They linked to a site called Begin Modeling.

When the women replied to the ads, the complaint alleges, the men said that the jobs were actually for pornographic videos, but still promised the $3,000 to $5,000 for a one-day shoot. In order to convince the women, the men promised that the videos would not be posted on the Internet and would only distributed to “supposed private collectors overseas.”

One of the plaintiffs in the criminal case said she was 20 and recently lost her job when she came across a Craigslist ad for Begin Modeling. The company promised her a job with an attractive male actor, an all-expense paid trip and “luxurious accommodations,” according to the criminal complaint. The woman spoke with a man named “Jonathan” and also texted with a woman named “Kaylin,” who “reassured” her that everything was “true and accurate.”

What convinced many women, according to testimony, were other women provided as references who would assure them that the videos wouldn’t be posted anywhere. One Southern California woman who is not involved in either case, but who says she was a victim of the scheme, told NBC 7 in San Diego that speaking to another woman was pivotal in her decision to participate. “I don’t think I would have followed through with it if she did not talk to me and text me and reassure me of her experience almost every other day,” she told the news outlet.

In a court declaration related to the civil case, as reported by NBC 7, one of those references, Amber Clark, said she was coached by Garcia “on how to correspond with the prospective women, to gain their trust, even if that included telling lies and hiding information.” Clark said she was paid $25 to $200 for each girl she convinced to appear on video, and estimated she acted as a reference for five to seven women in 2016.

Once the women signed on, they were flown to San Diego, where the shoots took place in hotel rooms. When the women arrived, they said, they were paid less than initially promised — some as little as $400, according to the criminal complaint. In the hotel rooms, women as young as 18 were allegedly offered alcohol during filming.

One of the women said she was “intimidated” and “felt that she was not free to leave.”

Others alleged they were raped.

A few months later, the women said, their videos appeared on Girls Do Porn, a subscription-based site, and free pornography sites, including PornHub. Their personal information — including their legal names and addresses — were also posted on online forums. In the civil case, women said they dropped out of school, lost jobs and had relationships ruined in the aftermath.

In court filings, Pratt and Wolfe said the women had signed contracts that stated the videos they appeared in could be “used anywhere, anyhow, for any purpose.”

A question of accountability

Statistics about the online porn industry are notoriously murky. What’s clear is that the industry is massively popular: It generates billions of dollars a year, and PornHub — the free site on which some of the Girls Do Porn videos were reposted — is, according to some estimates, the fourth most-visited site in the world.

Franks, the law professor, says that many women who have been the victims of fraud, coercion or assault in the porn industry don’t come forward, so there’s still little information about how widespread it is. And she says the popularity of online porn is part of the problem.

“It’s not just that law enforcement up until this point hasn’t really cared much about what was going on — it has a lot more to do with the fact that consumers of pornography don’t really care about what’s going on,” she says.

“People are consuming it in massive quantities, but they’re not asking themselves whether or not the conditions under which it was produced were fair or lawful.”

For many, the criminal case serves as a warning to other women. One woman told NBC 7 that after her videos were posted online, her parents stopped talking to her for a year. “I don’t want to see another young girl fall victim into any of this,” she said. “It’s horrible, it’s something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy.”

Lightner, the woman who was contacted by the Facebook user, says she takes precautions when responding to Craigslist ads: asking questions and for identification, bringing other people with her to shoots. “I’m not young anymore, I’m older, and I’ve been doing it for a bit,” she says of finding modeling jobs through Craigslist. “But I can absolutely see how somebody who is younger and not experienced could pick up on one of those fake ads and get sucked into something they weren’t prepared for.”

Franks thinks the latest case is a step in a “hopeful” direction. “It may be that the online porn industry ... acting how it simply wants to act may be coming to an end,” she says.

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